fitness

'I feel fraudulent'. The whole time I worked in the fitness industry, I had an eating disorder.

Content warning: This post deals with eating disorders, and could be triggering for some readers.

"Get a head start on your summer body..."

My phone buzzed, and I looked down to see an unsolicited marketing text from a major gym chain, not unlike the hundreds I’ve received over the years.

Except for some reason, this one really bothered me.

It wasn’t touting the health benefits of movement, the community found in gym culture, or the satisfaction there is to be gained by improving your physical strength. This text went straight for the fat phobic jugular, and I would almost respect their candour if I wasn’t so deeply troubled by it.

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Has the industry remained unchanged in the nearly 15 years since I showed up for my first shift on the gym floor?

The truth is, movement is actually one of the best things you can do for your overall health. And lifelong friendships, self-esteem and physical confidence can all be built in a gym. But despite those very tangible, life enhancing benefits, we’re still being sold a fantasy because the reality is much less bankable.

While in the early stages of recovery from anorexia nervosa, I discovered the guilt I had been harbouring for playing a role in that fantasy.

As a personal trainer, my body was my calling card. Unsurprisingly, my Instagram was filled with gym mirror selfies and workout routines. 

It was only in my eating disorder recovery that I started to understand the potential harm my 'fitspo' had caused. 

I had been one of the figures on that platform, reinforcing the thinness myth - the idea that thinness is attainable for everybody if you only work hard enough.

Granted, my following was modest and I considered most of my engagement to be manufactured, but I saw the comments from real women on my photos, like "you are body goals" and "that bod tho" and felt perturbed and fraudulent. 

I knew what I was doing to have a body like mine, and yet I allowed my clients to believe it was just a result of the workouts I was teaching. 

But as fitness professionals, do we have a duty of care that goes beyond our clients’ physical wellbeing? At what point do recommendations for dietary restriction and overexercise become negligent?

As a person who suffered with anorexia nervosa for the better part of a decade, our cultural obsession with demonising fat has done me immeasurable harm. But perhaps worse is the harm that I was, undoubtably, passing on to others. 

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While working as a personal trainer, I dutifully pinched new clients' flesh between grotesque callipers. I recommended restrictive eating practises as a means for health. 

I routinely weighed clients, spoke of the harms of processed sugar in our modern diet and ignored signs of overexercise. And I did all of this without screening for possible histories of eating disorders or body dysmorphia. 

I cannot express how much I wish I could go back in time 10 or so years, find my sick little self and talk some sense into her. That marketing text pulled me straight back into my old mindset and it made me sad for the person I was.

At the time, I understood, intellectually, that it was wrong to push our bodies past what was objectively healthy to achieve an aesthetic goal, and I preached this attitude to my clients. Yet at the very same time, I was doing just that to my own body in order to continue to look as though I belonged there.

These days, my gym mirror selfies have been replaced with things I find beautiful in the world around me, mixed in with what is very likely insufferable baby spam. 

I love scrolling through my newly curated Instagram feed. I recently finished unfollowing and muting the countless replicas of "health and wellness" influencers that filled my feed when I worked in the fitness industry and replaced them with inspiring, usually hilarious, and all-round bad ass women in all different bodies, from a variety of social justice spaces.

I find it hard not to be angry at the person I was for the harm I inevitably played a part in inflicting. And while this doesn’t excuse it, I was truly convinced that what I was doing was helping people. It’s a big part of why I feel compelled to share what I have learned as I slowly mend the relationship I have with my body and movement. 

I know things are shifting. Slowly for sure, but we’re making headway. I think that’s why this text stood out above the rest. I’ve become more accustomed now to seeing positive body image celebrated in place of shame-based marketing, that this one made me actually stand there and say "seriously?" to my phone. 

There is still so much I adore about certain pockets of the industry. 

I taught Pilates for several years and absolutely fell in love with the movement and the people I met there. I can see a time in the not-too-distant future, where I might be ready to step back into it and I absolutely advocate for doing the movement you love in the spaces that make you feel most at ease with yourself. 

I also advise caution when it comes to how you choose those spaces, but you know what feels best for you.

It is only getting better as our cultural beliefs around health and wellness move away from Kate Moss’ "Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels" and draws slowly closer to Eve Ensler’s "Stop trying to fix your body. It was never broken." 

For help and support for eating disorders, contact the Butterfly Foundation‘s National Support line and online service on 1800 ED HOPE (1800 33 4673) or email [email protected] 

You can also visit their website, here.

Feature Image: Instagram / @han.vee

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